A Focus On Nature

Books and Reviews

Nature Reading Roundup: February. A new series of articles by Chris Foster.

Chris is a birder who is slowly evolving into an amateur naturalist, one increasingly keen on finding, learning about and promoting more ‘obscure’ wildlife. Through his writing he tries to get across the sheer beauty of nature, but also wants to highlight just how much fun – for want of a better word – wildlife can be. He is employed by Reading University as a Teaching Associate in the School of Biological Sciences, focussing primarily on engaging students with species identification, biological recording and conservation philosophy. He is in the early stages of a PhD in invertebrate landscape ecology, through which he ultimately hopes to make a contribution to conserving the sorts of bird and insect rich landscapes he loves to spend time in.

A while ago I promised a piece for this blog on what you might call the nature of nature writing. What is it? How does it work? What is it for? Most crucially, for a would-be author of nature writing, how would one go about writing it? These questions turn out, like many subjects of the genre, to be tricky beasts. Writing is easy enough to define; we’ve been doing it for some seven thousand years, after all. But what exactly is nature? The more I think about that question, the less I think I know.

I also realised that there are many books within the canon of nature writing classics that I’ve never read. Silent Spring, The Peregrine, A Sand County Almanac, and The Natural History Of Selborne all come immediately to mind, and I’m sure there are many more. So whilst I evidently find nature writing hard to define, I know it when I see it. I know what it feels like; I recognise the real, warm, earthy smell of it.

By that loose definition, I would say that a good proportion of the books I’m drawn to count as nature writing. Rather than a pretentious grand survey of nature writing in the round, perhaps the best I can offer is a series of snippets, observations along the way gleaned from whatever I happen to be reading. I hope they help, for as much as each writer must find his or her own voice it helps to know where and how we’ll end up fitting into the choir. Both when outdoors and when curled up inside with a book, I suspect that to become nature writers we must first become nature readers.


Red-Tails in Love by Marie Winn (1998)

I picked up this book after reading about Conor Jameson’s trip to New York in Looking for the Goshawk. Red-Tails in Love is a warm, conversational account of the early history of a pair of red-tailed hawks (for those not au fait with American birdlife, it’s a large Buteo closely related to and not at all unlike our common buzzard) that pitched up to breed in Central Park in the early 1990s. It’s also a loving portrait of ‘the regulars’ – the thriving bird-watching community that calls Central Park home, both the old guard and a new influx of hawk-watchers drawn in by the antics of the red-tails.

A key tradition of birding in Central Park is the public register of sightings, which serves not only as a low-tech way of sharing information but also as a recruiting tool for the uninitiated. I loved Winn’s description of her first encounter with this engaging tome:

“The detailed observations, notations, exhortations, invitations, descriptions, maps, diagrams, even poems in the Bird Register gave me a tantalizing glimpse not only of the unexpected wildlife treasures of Central Park but of a community as well. Who were these people? I longed to know them, to learn their secrets. And there was the Bird Register right out in the open. “Don’t be an eavesdropper,” its voices seemed to be saying. “Come and join us, come and learn.”

She describes a group of people who hold each other in as much affection as they do the birds that first brought them together. They act as both cheerleader and first line of defence for the park’s surprisingly rich wildlife. The hawks perfectly illustrate that surprise. They don’t see the world in the same way we do. We see a place that is bustling, noisy, and in the heart of the city, and assume it is unsuitable for any large wild creature. The red-tails, however, see a nest site and plenty of food, and are content to stay, opening the minds of residents and visitors alike.

Rarer birdlife has the same impact. Here, for example, is the reaction of Sally Carwell (of Bowling Green, Kentucky), in New York to see the Christmas sights, when shown an owl through a telescope:

“A wild creature right in the heart of New York City! Isn’t that remarkable!” The idea that one of the sights New York had to offer was a long-eared owl roosting in a white pine had never entered their minds.”

I’ve hardly even touched on the drama that is the red-tailed hawks’ love life, but that’s a story best left to Winn to tell. It’s definitely worth a read, and I can make no better recommendation of a book than that by the end I too longed to know the wildlife secrets of Central Park.


The Eye of the Albatross by Carl Safina (2003)

Is it hard to get people to care about the oceans because they don’t live there? I sometimes make that argument as an excuse, and up to a point it’s a genuine one. At heart my engagement with conservation is a self-interested one: I’m working towards the sort of world I want for myself and those whom I love, and the remotest reaches of the sea are outside my everyday experience of that world.

In this often beautifully written book, Safina persuasively shows the inadequacy of such a land-centric conservation philosophy. Inspired by his travels around the Pacific on the trail of a satellite-tagged Laysan albatross known as Amelia – the individual whose point-of-view drives the narrative – he is particularly eloquent in musing on the true borders of our society, and the value of compassion for wildlife:

“Seeing a parent albatross gagging up a toothbrush changed my worldview. In my mental map, society no longer stops at the borders of shorelines, or species. The world is no longer large enough for that. We’ve woven the albatross and the other creatures into our society. That creates a certain moral obligation. Fortunately, it’s an obligation that calls forth the most elevating and uniquely human qualities: empathy, foresight, compassion, generosity of spirit. The implication of finiteness is not merely of limits but also of potential, and the opportunity to create a better world.”

What is sad to reflect on is that most of the threats Safina describes remain, from longline fishing to rats to plastic pollution. In the face of such a litany of disasters it’s too easy to despair, but, importantly, the tone of this book is hopeful, not preachy, depressed or doom-mongering. Amidst a desperate struggle for survival, Safina finds inspiration:

“You wonder again how life can be maintained amid such abundant misery, such universal hostility coming from every dimension. Yet you see that the grace, the acuity, the exquisite tuning of these animals all derive from so merciless a struggle.”

And, like Winn’s, Safina’s vision of conservation is as much populated by people as by wildlife. His recollections of the ragtag bunch of misfits that work the remote research stations of the Pacific bring further levity to an otherwise troublesome tale, and one such character relates advice that young conservationists would do well to heed: as far as possible, do a job you would volunteer for.

If I dare criticise what is a brilliantly executed book, it is sometimes so consciously well-crafted as to sound forced or even a tad cheesy, for example, “humans inhabit only one island, a blue and white orb of pumice surrounded by a soap bubble, afloat the great dark universal sea.” Even speaking as a writer who tends to use thirteen words where three would do, that’s a bit much.

And the book wanders around the globe to a near disorienting extent – once or twice I had to skip back a few pages to remind myself what island we were supposed to be on. But maybe that’s the point; after all, albatrosses’ travels are staggeringly wide-ranging. Amelia’s feeding flights over the course of a single breeding season range from 200 to 5000 miles, which in a lifetime adds up to a lot of flying – he estimates that a 50-year-old albatross will have covered a minimum of 3.7 million miles. These, then, are extraordinary, near-incomprehensible creatures. That Safina comes close to making them knowable is no small achievement.


That concludes this months round up, but do look out for more installments in the future. Next month I’ll be considering writing about walking.